Juneteenth in Cleveland: Ways to Celebrate Virtually During a Battle for Racial Justice
By Deidre McPherson, Director of Community Programs
This Friday, June 19, 2020, is Juneteenth. Also known as Freedom Day and Jubilee Day, Juneteenth (a combination of the words June and nineteenth) honors the day in 1865 (two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued) that enslaved men and women in Texas found out they were free.
Over the last 155 years, annual Juneteenth celebrations have both flourished and waned in African American communities across the country. However, there has been a resurgence in Juneteenth events and activities in recent years. And, this year companies like Target, Twitter, Nike, and numerous others have chosen to take the tragic deaths of George Floyd and others as the impetus to honor a holiday that recognizes the plight of black people in America.
If you’re looking for ways to learn more about the significance and relevance of Juneteenth, below I recommend a few CMA artworks, public events, and local landmarks.
Cleveland Museum of Art, Collections Online
Using CMA’s Collections Online, you can explore the museum’s entire collection, including works currently in archives. Here are a few of artworks that remind me of Juneteenth:
Jacob Lawrence, To Preserve Their Freedom
These prints reinterpret a series of paintings that African American artist Jacob Lawrence made about Toussaint L’Ouverture, a Haitian revolutionary. Born into slavery, L’Ouverture led an uprising that freed Haiti from French rule. After hearing the story as a young man and being struck that it had been omitted from his formal education, Lawrence began to paint episodes from L’Ouverture’s life, using bright colors and simple forms to evoke its drama.
This artwork represents the uprisings in the name of freedom and anti-racism that have occurred throughout history, including today. The New York Times Magazine 1619 Project essay, “We are committing educational malpractice’: Why slavery is mistaught — and worse — in American schools explains why so many of us didn’t learn about Juneteenth and more,” offers insights on why many of us didn’t learn about Juneteenth, L’Ouverture, and more in history class.
Bruce Davidson, Time of Change Untitled (50360)
Photographer Bruce Davidson experienced and documented the Civil Rights protests in America from 1961–65. His photographs of the movement reveal the multifaceted nature of the fight for change. In this photograph, a young black boy stands on a statue of Abraham Lincoln, who believed slavery was morally wrong, but did not believe black people should have the same rights as white people. This photo reminds me that we are still grappling with our city and our country’s longstanding history of systemic racism.
Rashid Johnson, Run
Contemporary artist Rashid Johnson draws on the traditions of painting and conceptual art to explore the lived experiences of African American men. This print belongs to a series that began as an exploration of the artist’s own anxieties but grew to express the experiences of young black men during a time marked by police violence and mass incarceration. In the artist’s words, “I . . . realiz[ed] that my anxiety was not mine exclusively.”
This print speaks to the fear that black people are experiencing right now. The recent police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and Tamir Rice have evoked trauma, worsening mental health issues in the black community.
Thomas Browne Cornell, Frederick Douglass
On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass gave a keynote address at an Independence Day celebration and titled the speech, What to the American Slave is Your 4th of July, as a reminder of why the 4th of July should never be celebrated without being reminded of the significance of June 19 (Juneteenth) in America. In his speech, he acknowledged the deep contradiction of our nation’s founding ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and the hypocrisy of having those ideals with the existence of slavery.
Robert A. Pruitt, Rage Against Machine
In this drawing Robert Pruitt depicts a woman dressed in costume from the 19th century, when slavery still flourished, but with contemporary tennis shoes peeking out from underneath her dress. She holds a long-handled hammer, a reference to the freed slave John Henry, who hammered steel drills into rock and became a legend when he won a race against a steam-powered drill during the 1870s. In the same way that Henry overcame a machine, Pruitt’s heroic figure suggests the destruction of a corrupt and inequitable system.
This artwork represents the rich tradition of black women leaders who have occupied a central role in advocating for equality and justice, from anti-lynching campaigner Ida B. Wells in the late 1890s to the mother of Ahmaud Arbery, Wanda Cooper Jones, who is now pushing Georgia to pass a hate crime bill.
Celebrating Juneteenth around Cleveland
Based right here in Cleveland, Karamu House is the country’s oldest African American producing theater. Karamu has responded to the recent murders of black Americans by announcing a Juneteenth evening of music, spoken word, dance, and conversation. Freedom on Juneteenth premiers this Friday at 7 p.m. on Facebook live, YouTube, Vimeo, and Roku. #blacklivesmatter #Juneteenth #supportBlackartists #thisisCLE
This Saturday, June 20, from 1–6 p.m., Djapo Cultural Arts Institute presents Drum, Dance & Dialogue, a Juneteenth event featuring a drum class with Weedie Braimah, a dance class with Talise Campbell, and a dialogue/reading of the Juneteenth Proclamation.
The Buckeye Summer Soul Series presents a Juneteenth Freedom Walk and Celebration 11 a.m.–5 p.m. this Saturday. The day begins with a Freedom Walk departing from Benedictine High School (2900 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.) and ends with a Juneteenth Celebration at Art and Soul Park (the “jazz man” statue at E. 118th and Buckeye) featuring a drum circle, music, vendor village, and more.
Station Hope 2020, a virtual event presented by Cleveland Public Theatre, is a jubilant community event celebrating Cleveland’s social justice history and exploring contemporary struggles for freedom and equity. Engage with local artists as they envision, interrogate, and seek out hope from where they are stationed. Audience members will participate virtually and witness livestreamed performances of theater, music, storytelling, and dance inspired by the most important issues of our time. Broadcast from the historic grounds of Cleveland’s first authenticated Underground Railroad site, St. John’s Episcopal Church (2600 Church Avenue). Saturday, June 27, 5–10 p.m.
Visit Historical Landmarks
The Cozad-Bates House is the only pre-Civil War residential structure remaining within University Circle, built around 1853. The National Park Service listed the Cozad-Bates House on its registry in 1974, and the City of Cleveland made it a historic landmark in 2006. The home was saved from possible demolition by the Cleveland Restoration Society, Restore Hope, and University Circle Inc. in 2006. Donated to UCI by University Hospitals, the home is also reflective of Cleveland’s anti-slavery era and legacy of abolition left by the settler families who built homes within University Circle and aided freedom seekers through Ohio’s Underground Railroad network and the Cleveland area, which was known by the secret code name “Hope.” Restore Hope Inc. retells, promotes, and celebrates Cleveland’s Underground Railroad history. It serves as a resource to inform and inspire both children and adults through educational programs. They act as a unifying force in the community by providing a venue for open dialogue, reflection, and reconciliation among all freedom-loving peoples.
In Lakewood Park there is a historical marker acknowledging “Freedom’s Last Station” on the Underground Railroad. The plaque reads, “On or near this site, and at the mouth of Rocky River, escaped slaves from the south waited for boats that would take them to Canada in the days before the Civil War. This marker is placed in their memory, so that their quest for freedom will never be forgotten.” Marker donated by Robert and Gary Rice, 2006.
So far, Juneteenth is recognized as a state holiday or special day of observance in 47 states, including Ohio. This year, the reclaiming of Juneteenth captures the spirit of a national movement demanding support for initiatives that create safety, pride, change, and equity for the black community. It is also a call for all citizens to find a way to acknowledge and observe this day in unity with black communities because if there is not a retelling or remembrance of the true history of our nation, then we are doomed to repeat it.